By itself, championship Sunday is one of the best sports days of the year. Four NFL teams. Two games. Two tickets to the Super Bowl. Hell, the matchups could be Cardinals-Panthers and Bengals-Bills and the nation would still tune in.
But when one game features the oldest rivalry in pro football, one that calls to mind Halas and Lombardi and Butkus and Nitschke? And the other showcases a swaggering New York squad desperate for its first Super Bowl berth since Woodstock, against the most successful franchise in NFL history? As Dan Dierdorf would say: ho-ho-HO!
With the lines, and all times Eastern:
Packers (-3) at Bears, Sunday, 3 pm, FOX
It's not every day you see a road favorite in a conference championship game, but then again, Aaron Rodgers is no everyday quarterback. Snubbed by 21 teams in the 2005 draft, the Green Bay gunslinger has steamrolled the opposition in four straight elimination games, capping it off with an ungodly stat line in last week's demolition of the Falcons (31-36, 366 yards, 3 TDs). But the Packer offense will face the sternest test of the year when it battles both the elements (gametime temperature at Chicago's Soldier Field: 20 degrees) and the vaunted Bears' defense. The Bears have a dynamic QB of their own in Jay Cutler, but his only playoff win came last week against the 8-9 Seahawks. The health of Green Bay's All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson will be key: he's been battling a toe injury all season but is still liable to have at least one game-changing play.
THE PICK: Packers 31, Bears 21
Jets at Steelers (-3.5), Sunday, 6:30 pm, CBS
Gang Green is two-thirds of the way through the AFC gauntlet, having dispatched of the Elder Manning Dynasty and the Evil Empire in a week's time. But the Colts and Patriots were finesse teams, and the Jets must now beat a Steelers squad that plays the same smashmouth football as they do, only better. Pittsburgh is epitomized by granite-like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who beat the Ravens back in December with a broken nose and a busted right foot. Jets' coach Rex Ryan has embraced the scrappy underdog role all season, and he should have no problem getting his team to buy into that mantra against Pittsburgh, which has been to 14 conference championship games in the last 39 years.
The Jets have already beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field this year, a 22-17 grinder that could easily repeat itself come Sunday. Hate Ryan and his evolutionary '85 Bears if you must. But unless you're from Pittsburgh, how could you not want the circus to continue?
THE PICK: Jets 16, Steelers 13